Ever since 1983, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan broached the project, the idea of a missile defense program that would protect the United States from nuclear attack has burned bright in the breasts of many Americans. The image of a nation protected from threat and insulated from nuclear blackmail has an irresistible appeal: The project’s feasibility has always been another matter. Nonetheless, the U.S. is virtually committed to develop a missile defense system, no matter the consequences. Unfortunately, those consequences could be severe and might even diminish U.S. security and that of its allies.

The missile threat is real. The Pentagon estimates that more than 20 nations have missiles of one form or another and about 25 governments possess or are trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. Reportedly, more than 75 nations have cruise missiles.

Last week, the U.S. conducted another test of its interceptor system, the second of three that are scheduled before President Bill Clinton decides this summer whether to go ahead with initial construction of a national missile defense. The test failed, which makes two misses in a row. The first test, held in October, was pronounced a success, but the Pentagon has since revealed technical problems that suggest the original evaluation was generous.

The technical issues involved are severe, and the administration is committed to a “3+3” program, in which three years will be used to develop and test the system and then achieve operational capacity within three more. If all goes on schedule, the new system will be up and running by 2005.

Critics claim that three years is not enough time for the preparatory phase, and charge that the U.S. is “rushing toward failure.” The test results would seem to validate the charge. But it has become apparent that, the administration’s protests notwithstanding, efficacy will not determine whether the system is developed. In fact, John Pike, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists, believes the Clinton administration will be “compelled” to endorse national missile defense this summer.

Charles Pena, an independent defense consultant, and Barbara Conry, an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, argue that missile defense has become a “theological rather than a public policy issue.” For conservatives, and especially Republicans eager to hold high the banner of Reagan’s presidency (and bask in its reflection), NMD has become “a political and ideological litmus test.”

That is understandable — although fiscal conservatives may challenge a $12.7 billion system that doesn’t work — but it doesn’t explain why the administration has adopted the program. The U.S. position is doubly puzzling since “the proposed NMD system would have essentially zero capability against the most likely emerging threat — an ICBM from North Korea,” said Richard Garwin, chairman of the Arms Control Advisory Committee of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in recent testimony before the U.S. Congress. “It would have strictly zero capability against the much more realistic and important threat from North Korea, Iran or Iraq — short-range cruise or ballistic missiles fired from merchant ships near U.S. shores, a nuclear weapon detonated in a harbor, or biological warfare agent disseminated in the U.S. from a ship in harbor,” he added.

The Clinton administration’s embrace of NMD followed two embarrassing high-level reports. In 1995, a National Intelligence Estimate claimed that “no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.” In contrast, a congressionally mandated panel concluded three years later that the U.S. did face ballistic missile threats — an assessment that was confirmed within weeks when North Korea launched its Taepodong 1. Chastened, and fearful of handing the GOP a powerful issue as elections approached, the administration quickly lined up behind NMD.

The trouble is NMD isn’t leakproof, even when the technical issues are worked out (and even pessimists concede it is only a matter of time). Apart from threats delivered by other means than ballistic missiles, the interceptors are easily overwhelmed by countermeasures, such as decoys, dummy warheads and balloons. Writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, George Lewis, Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright, from the MIT Security Studies Program, concede that “it is now technically feasible ‘to hit a bullet with a bullet’ on the test range, but adversaries would be able to take straightforward steps to defeat this system, not only preventing it from achieving the high levels of effectiveness claimed for it, but also precluding any significant security effects.”

Worse, NMD could actually diminish security. A nation that believes itself protected by such a shield could become belligerent or more reckless than it would otherwise be. U.S. assurances that NMD is not directed at either Russia or China are not working. Both governments might respond by building up their offensive arsenals, or moving toward a fire-on-warning system to ensure that they do not lose their missiles in a first strike.

Finally, there are growing concerns that NMD might unravel the arms-control regime that has been built during the last three decades. Once, that warning might have seemed overly dramatic. Coming on the heels of the nuclear tests on the Indian subcontinent and the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, those fears seem justified. Russia has made it clear that it regards NMD as a violation of the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty, and has refused Washington’s offers to renegotiate.

That pessimism is echoed by Lewis and his fellow researchers, who concluded that “in the medium to long run, the price of a national missile defense system deployed by the United States may well be a world with more ICBMs and weapons of mass destruction. Compared with the large and nearly certain security costs, the benefits the planned NMD system would provide are both too small and too uncertain to justify its deployment.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.